Activism & Ecotheater

On the evening of October 27, students, faculty, and theater enthusiasts gathered in Fisher-Bennet Hall to listen to the PPEH and the Program in Theater Arts-sponsored round table on performance, politics, and climate change. As a part of the two-day symposium on this topic, Sarah Standing, Assistant Professor in the Humanities Department at CUNY; Marcia Ferguson, Program Director for the Theater Arts Program at Penn and a senior lecturer in Theatre Arts; Quinn Bauriedel, co-Founder & Co-Artistic Director of the Pig Iron Theatre Company; Sarah Sanford, faculty member at the Pig Iron School for Advanced Performance Training; and Mary Mattingly, visual artist and creator of the experimental houseboat WetLand discussed the young medium of ecotheatre and its potential for addressing the problems of climate change.

Discussion first focused on WetLand, which Marcia and her students had used the previous day for some impromptu theatre, as a performance space. Mary related her experience in constructing WetLand and the tension it often produced with various institutions, turning the conversation to the subversive nature of political theatre. In particular, the participants focused on the relationship between political theatre and other media, addressing questions of how blunt, transgressive, or humourous it should be.

When it comes to climate change, it emerged, this problem is particularly acute: activism about global warming is often gloomy, and it can be hard not to be overwhelmed by the apocalyptic overtones of efforts to educate the public on this issue. But here, the panelists pointed out, political theatre has an advantage over other methods of communication because it is intimately personal and not limited by the bounds of journalism or scientific publication, for instance. As Quinn noted, while politicians may be seen as untrustworthy and scientists too erudite, actors can convey the apocalyptic nature of the threat facing humanity and the urgency of action with humour and playfulness.

By the end of the round table, a consensus seems to have emerged that the newness of ecotheatre was its greatest strength, granting its practitioners both license and flexibility. The creativity, spontaneity, and intimacy of political theatre, they suggested, is what gives the greatest optimism to those hoping to effect change in an environment saturated with discussion of the uncertainties posed by climate change.


Ruben Post

Ancient History Ph.D. Candidate, University of Pennsylvania

Fellow, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities